Monday, April 18, 2022

A Student's Perspective on Book Banning

From By Sungjoo Yoon, "I’m a High School Junior. Let’s Talk About ‘Huckleberry Finn’ and ‘Mockingbird":

BURBANK, Calif. — In late 2020, when the Burbank Unified School District removed five classic novels from mandatory reading lists in my city’s classrooms, I started a petition to protest the decision. The petition, which is still open, has more than 5,000 signatures.

I was a sophomore at Burbank High School at the time, and had read four of the five books in school — “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain; “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” by Mildred D. Taylor; “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee; and “The Cay” by Theodore Taylor. The fifth, “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck, I read on my own a few years earlier.

The books were being removed from the core curriculum, according to Matt Hill, the superintendent of the Burbank Unified district, after complaints from students and parents that the depictions of racism and language in these works — particularly the use of the N-word — caused harm to Black students.

My position was this: I acknowledged that Black students were being marginalized in our classrooms (I was sympathetic, too; I am all too familiar with the demeaning nature of racism) — but did not think that it was the fault of these books or their content. I believed, and still believe, that the solution was not to remove the books, but to add more books written by people of color, and to better train teachers to teach these books sensitively to students.

As the petition attracted signatures, I spoke at several school board meetings on the issue. I recall one meeting in particular. I had prepared to talk about how these novels helped shape me both as a student and as a human being. I spoke briefly about how reading the story of a Black family in the Deep South in “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,” under the guidance of a caring teacher, had moved me to tears and to a commitment to learn more about the resilience and resistance of the people upon whose backs this country was built. I explained how these class experiences helped move me and some fellow students from complacent private citizens to people who today are deeply involved in the fight for social justice.

There was more I could have said: How Atticus Finch’s defense of Tom Robinson in “To Kill a Mockingbird” taught me the danger of complacency; how the unlikely friendships of Huckleberry Finn and Jim in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” or Phillip Enright and Timothy in “The Cay” taught me that love transcends any and all differences.

But standing on the boardroom floor as comments from others in the meeting began, I witnessed the public forum — made up mostly of parents, administrators and educators — devolve into tribalist dissension. The meeting quickly became a two-sided shouting match pitting supposed “freedoms” against purported “justice.” There was plenty of arguing, but little or no meaningful discussion on why those novels were in question, or what students would lose or gain by a ban against them.

At that moment, I had a long-overdue realization: How we as Americans approach restrictions on literature curriculums is not only flawed but also wholly reactionary. My experience at that meeting and others convinced me that the problem is not that we disagree, but how. We need to shift focus away from reflexive outrage about restrictions and bans, and toward actual discussions of the merits and drawbacks of the individual books...

Keep reading.